I have never been quite sure about what goes on in a recording studio, and that’s despite the fact that I’ve been in quite a few, on both sides of the desk. My ﬁrst experience in a studio was as a musician and, quite frankly, I didn’t really care what the recording engineer or the producer did with our band’s sound— we’d ﬁnally made it into a studio and were making an album.
When I ﬁnally heard the result, I was surprised only because I’d never heard what we sounded like other than at live gigs, where I often couldn’t hear very much at all except what I was being fed through the foldback monitors. I recall I was perfectly happy with the resulting sound, but really had no idea whether it accurately reﬂected what we sounded like to someone in the audience. I was really only interested in the ‘musicianship’ of the performance itself, not the ‘sound’ of that performance.
My next studio experience was on the other side of the desk and this time I did have an idea of the type of sound I wanted and I selected and placed the microphones, instrument pick-ups and so on with the same care I applied to all the other components in the recording chain. Alas, these were the days before the arrival of the compact disc, and when it came time to cut the LP, I was told by the cutting engineer that my two-channel master was ‘unusable’ because there was too much non-correlated material in the left and right channels—apparently an impossible task for any cutter-head, with the result that my multi-track tape was spirited away to a ‘real’ engineer for re-mixing to stereo. (His two-channel remix didn’t sound anywhere near as good as mine, but at least it could be cut!)
I was reminded of the mystery of studio sound after receiving a press release from a company that makes equipment for use in recording studios. Their equipment apparently ‘allows effortless shaping and improvement of your audio signals, giving high-end detail and polish, and low-end punch and depth,’ and will reportedly allow you to ‘compress’, ‘de-ess’, ‘gate’, ‘level’ and ‘peak-limit’ the audio signal, as well as ‘add subtle analogue colour.’ Music producer Nick Sansono (Sonic Youth, Public Enemy) told The New Yorker that he mixes to: ‘provide music that will translate well within the limitations of earbuds and small Bluetooth speakers’ and as a result he deliberately limits dynamic range and frequency bandwidth. ‘Less dynamics essentially makes listeners perceive the song’s sound as loud and present,’ he is reported as saying.
All of which means that there’s a lot of jiggery-pokery going on with the audio signal before it reaches your loudspeakers, even if you’re paying a premium for so-called ‘high-res’ ﬁles. And in a sombre note for fans of DSD, all this jiggery-pokery is taking place in the PCM domain, because it’s not possible to do this with DSD. So the huge majority of so-called ‘pure DSD’ recordings have been, at one time in their life, PCM. I am told that a handful—literally—of DSD recordings have been made that were recorded in DSD and kept in this format (so no editing, no volume adjustments, no splicing, nada…) but it is, literally, a handful. So basically, our ‘hi-res’ music has been ‘compressed’, ‘de-essed’, ‘gated’, ‘peak limited’, and had its ‘dynamics reduced’ before we even get to hear it.
So maybe it's not hi-fi equipment that needs to be improved, but the recording process itself. # greg borrowman